'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Warren Littlefield ('The Handmaid's Tale')

The man who ran NBC (during the 'Must See TV' era of the 1990s) and then became one of TV's most successful producers (winning an Emmy for 'Fargo') discusses the secrets of programming a broadcast network, why his own shows go out via cable and streaming and what the future of TV will look like.
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Warren Littlefield

"I'm having such a wonderful time," says Warren Littlefield, the former president of entertainment at NBC who, after presiding over the "Must See TV" era of the 1990s, has reinvented himself as one of TV's top independent producers, playing an instrumental role in bringing to life shows like FX's Fargo, for which he won an Emmy, and most recently Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, the first three episodes of which begin streaming on Wednesday. "Rather than juggling a hundred balls, I'm jugging a dozen," Littlefield says of the move from executive to producer, as we sit down in the Beverly Hills offices of MGM (which produces both aforementioned shows) to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "And the depth of the creative experience is wonderfully satisfying to me."

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Born and raised in New Jersey, Littlefield was a big childhood consumer of TV and later a high school drama participant. Shortly after he graduated from college, he went to work as a gofer for a former classmate who had established a production company in New York and was making a TV pilot. "That was the moment I went, 'Yes, this is what I should be doing,'" Littlefield recalls. His enthusiasm was reflected in his performance, which quickly led to additional responsibilities, and eventually an opportunity to produce his own TV movie for the company, 1979's The Last Giraffe. That, in turn, led to a move to Los Angeles and a job in comedy development at Warner Bros. Television, which "liked my entrepreneurial spirit," he notes. Littlefield was only employed there for six months, though, because that was when NBC first came calling.

Brandon Tartikoff, the legendary president of NBC Entertainment, was among those who recruited Littlefield to the Peacock Network, and a job in comedy development, in 1979. Littlefield became a protege of Tartikoff, who was known for his expertise at programming the network's lineup in a way that produced incredible ratings, and also Grant Tinker, who became chairman of the network in 1981. While accumulating this "tremendous education," Littlefield says, he began to move up the corporate food-chain, becoming vp comedy development and current comedy, then senior vp entertainment, then executive vp entertainment and eventually president of NBC Entertainment, the job at the "top of the rock" (which also happens to be the name of his excellent 2012 memoir), as in 30 Rock, as in 30 Rockefeller Center.

During his early years at NBC, Littlefield helped to develop shows like Cheers, The Golden Girls and The Cosby Show, which established the network as the place for sophisticated adult comedy. NBC managed to grow Cheers from last place to first place in the ratings, something only Lou Grant had ever done, and Littlefield reflects, "It changed the DNA of NBC as a network. It's a show that we would go back to, through the nineties, and point to as, 'This is who we are.'" By the time Littlefield took over the reins at the network in 1990, though, not long after it had topped the Nielsen ratings for an unprecedented 68 weeks in a row, many thought there was nowhere to go but down — indeed, for the first few years, Littlefield was among them.

But the ending of Cheers in 1993, which initially seemed like a catastrophic blow, actually paved the way for even greater success. The Cheers spinoff Frasier came out later in 1993. Then, the 1994 pilot season brought Friends and ER to NBC’s lineup. And in 1995, Friends found its audience and Seinfeld, a show that struggled mightily since debuting in 1990, was moved from Wednesday to Thursday and "exploded." All of these now-iconic shows — and others that followed, such as Will & Grace, which began in 1998 — fit into Littlefield's vision for the network's persona as the place for young urbanites — and Littlefield decided to air all of them on Thursday nights. “Must See TV,” as the network advertised that evening's lineup, generated more revenue for NBC than every other night of the week combined, and dominated the competition in the ratings. "We created a colossal blockbuster of a night," he says. "We created a destination unlike any night that television has ever known."

Despite this massive success at a time of great change (General Electric became NBC's parent company in 1986, and cable began to shake up the TV landscape not long after), and relatively few mistakes (one exception being losing Roseanne to ABC), Littlefield was driven out of the network in 1998 due to clashes with NBC's West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, his domineering superior. "He was a bully," Littlefield says now. "It was devastating to me at the time, but ultimately change is good." Without him, NBC quickly began to flounder. He blames one of his successors, Jeff Zucker, for destroying "Must See TV" by putting The Apprentice on Thursday nights ("for Jeff Zucker, it was just a time period ... and that ended the era"), and credits another, incumbent Bob Greenblatt, for helping to restore some luster to the network ("I think they're doing a number of things really well — I love This Is Us, which is probably the only network series that I seek out ... and I'm gonna look forward to [the upcoming revival of Will & Grace]").

Littlefield, meanwhile, launched The Littlefield Company and returned to independent producing. "There was so much for me to learn," he volunteers, "because being in the seat of a buyer is a very different dynamic than trying to create content and find underlying IP and put a creative package together and make it." He eventually got the hang of it, though, and brought to fruition a number of critically and/or commercially successful shows — not for any of the major broadcast networks, but for cable and streaming — most notably FX’s Fargo, the first season of which brought him an Emmy, and the third season of which premiered April 19.

Littlefield's latest high-profile project is The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel about "an alternative world — one that's recognizable, but not quite the world we live in today," he says. The series was created by Bruce Miller and stars Elisabeth Moss (The West Wing, Mad Men), and many have noted how timely it is in the era of Donald Trump, when misogyny, women's control over their own's bodies, religious fundamentalism and the destruction of the environment are all in the headlines. "Everything rapidly became more relevant than we ever expected," Littlefield acknowledges. Critics and pundits already have gotten a look at it, and it currently stands at 100 percent on RottenTomatoes.com, with the most serious Emmy buzz that a Hulu series ever has attracted.

"As proud as I am about my past," Littlefield says, "I love to be living in the present. And so this month, I celebrate that I'm a part of Fargo and Handmaid's Tale. That is wildly, wildly exciting for me — and it's the reason why I don't sleep!"